Oculus' annual developer conference is underway, and before the company tells us what's new tomorrow, it's giving us all a refresher course on some demos we've seen before. We have a few thoughts after Day One of Oculus Connect 2.
Oculus has become practically synonymous with VR – and for good reason. Walk through Oculus Connect's halls and demo rooms and it immediately sinks in just how much this company has poured into this new medium. Oculus pioneered this virtual reality movement, and with the help of Mark Zuckerberg and his Scrooge McDuck-like pool of money, the young company now makes for an unusual combination: hungry startup mentality combined with mega-corporation backing.
That's an interesting recipe. And it's even more interesting when you consider that virtual reality doesn't yet have any major consumer products. Some would see this as an enormous gamble on Facebook's part. Perhaps even a stupid one.
But once you dive into Oculus' virtual worlds, it starts to feel a lot less like a gamble. Not only is the consumer Oculus Rift a polished, high-quality piece of gear, but it also has by far the most impressive array of game demos we've seen in this young VR space.
The funny thing is, most of the demos we've played are less about giving you the sensation of being somewhere else (first-person), which is probably what most people would expect from VR. Oculus' demos so far are more about paying homage to the gaming world. It looks like the company is building a repertoire of what amounts to love letters to classic gaming.
Rift exclusive Lucky's Tale (above), from what we've seen, is basically a modern-day Super Mario 64. Only it's like you're playing the Nintendo 64 classic for the first time all over again, as VR has a way of making long-forgotten gaming genres suddenly seem fresh again (see also Elite: Dangerous for the space sim genre). We can see ourselves getting lost for hours in Lucky's Tale's lush cartoon worlds – squashing crabs, jumping over flame-throwers and bouncing off of clamshells. It's mesmerizing and familiar, all at once.
It also showcases an innocence in gaming that you don't often see today. Not the flashy and gimmicky kind of cuteness that's designed to rake in App Store microtransactions from addicted children, but a childlike joy and sweetness that would make Walt Disney, Jim Henson or John Lasseter proud.
This pops up again in Henry, a short VR film from Oculus Story Studio. It isn't about a brooding superhero or the next zombie apocalypse; it's about ... wait for it ... a cute and lonely little hedgehog who just wants a hug. It would be right at home in a Pixar film (and the influence there is likely strong), but perhaps it also reveals something about Oculus' character.
Make no mistake: the Oculus Rift isn't going to be a full-time Disneyland, with nothing but cuddly foxes and hugging hedgehogs. It pays homage to all of gaming, so there will be gruesome head-shots, internal organs gone external and all sorts of adult-only content that will make you crap your pants. It will be violent and it will be glorious – all on the Oculus Rift.
... but we do see a company that doesn't just want to push technology forward and play to the least common denominators. It wants to use VR to create new kinds of human experiences.
Speaking of human experiences, the Oculus Touch controllers (above) take the big step of giving you "hands" inside your virtual worlds. We still think the HTC Vive's free-roaming aspect takes the whole full-body teleportation thing to a level that we haven't yet seen in our Oculus demos ("yet" being the keyword, as this developers' conference is young), but wielding the two Wii nunchuck type controllers while using the Rift headset isn't too far off. You can pick things up, manipulate them and throw them. And you can walk around a little bit. Just not as much as on the Vive.
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told us at the Oculus Rift launch event earlier this year that Rift owners will be able to set up multiple sensors, which would presumably allow for a wider area of movement. So far our Rift demos have been confined to (roughly) 5 x 5 ft. areas. Stretching that out to a 12 x 9 ft. space, like you can do with the Vive, does add to the sense of presence in first-person experiences. You know the company that kickstarted this whole thing is going to go there (and beyond) as well; the only question is when.
Who knows, maybe we'll find out at the Oculus keynote tomorrow. Be sure to check back at Gizmag.