This time of year is always pretty eventful where I work. It’s the time of year where BA and BSc students are coming to the end of their major projects, and there’s usually some pretty cool experiments to get involved in. Last year I was incredibly lucky to take part in a demonstration of full 3D audio, with a 9 speaker set up that took mixing techniques and immersive audio to a whole new level. I wasn’t sure that could be equalled, that was until a student put up a post looking for volunteers to try out the Oculus Rift as part of his dissertation project.
For those that don’t know, the Oculus Rift is a Virtual Reality headset and is a truly immersive gaming experience. I have been dying to get my hands on one of these since the original Kickstarter launched, and so I signed up immediately.
The day of the experiment arrives and I turn up at the live pod in the Studio Wing, the same room where we recorded the first 20+ episodes of NerdVsWorld. I am given a heart monitor to strap across my chest under my t-shirt, and a corresponding watch that will allow one of the assistants to take readings during the experiments. I am then asked to sit at a desk, on the otherside of which there is a video camera that has been set up to record the whole thing. I am then handed the Oculus Rift headset, and put it on.
The headset is a sturdy piece of kit and it fits like a glove, as I maneuver it over my head, with a series of straps taking the weight so there is no pressure on my nose or face. Really, until I tried it on I hadn’t even considered the logistics of the device at this level. There are two eye pieces in side, and before the first game is loaded I can see the Windows screen separately on both of them. Once the game was loaded, the image became one. It fits so snugly to your face, that you can see nothing else, and in a small room with four people, I felt quite isolated.
The details of the first game are explained to me as the set up process gets underway. There are no controls, I simply have to sit and look around and the game will take me through the level. They tell me that I am Subject 1, and that Subject Zero almost threw up. I jokingly say that perhaps I shouldn’t have had that sausage and egg panini, the one that I had finished mere moments before.
“Haha, don’t worry, you’ll be fine” is the response “How are you normally with roller-coasters?”
“How am I with what?” I ask
“Oh, I don’t do roller coasters..”
The laughing in the room stops, replaced by an ominous silence.
By now it’s too late and the game has started. I find myself in a medieval environment, moving through the streets on some kind of track. I look around and everywhere I look there is incredible detail, the world of the game filling in and surrounding you. I look up and I see sky, sun, clouds. I look behind me and I see the track that I’m riding on stretch out behind me. I turn to face forward and notice that the track is now rising up, looking down I see the ground below me getting further away. My inner voice is going “Wow, this freaking cool”, when suddenly I spot where this track is heading. Some way in the distance the track climbs up behind the turret of huge castle, and then emerges in the sort of sheer vertical drop that roller coaster designers wish they could get away with.
I feel my anxiety levels rising as the cart approaches the edge of the drop, my inner dialog now just screaming “OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!”. I close my eyes, and try to breathe through the panic, trying to rationalise with my mind. I am not hundreds of feet up in the air, I am sat on a chair that is very much fixed at ground level. I just about beat the urge to rip the headset off and bolt, and then the drop comes...
Now I have spent many hours of gameplay on DC Universe Online, climbing to the highest points of Gotham and Metropolis before throwing myself into free fall; and yet, even in first person, nothing prepared me for what the Oculus Rift was about to put me through. I tried keeping my eyes on a fixed position, but found that I had to look around, and when I did I felt every twist and turn of the track, the acceleration of the drop. It. Was. Incredible!
The next test is a version of Alone in the Dark. Standard WASD key controls for movement, combined with some mouse usage too. The idea is that minor corrections in direction can be affected by moving ones head and letting the Rift take control, but for major sweeps you should use the mouse.
Reconciling these two control systems together took some getting used to, and about 5 minutes in I realised that I had been blindly staggering around in circles in the dark. The game itself was fairly uneventful, and aside from the first two scare moments nothing else really caught me off guard.
The final game was one that had been designed by the student running the experiment, and featured three puzzle rooms. The first required picking up and placing objects in a container, the second required the player to move with a series of moving spotlights, and the third required you just to stand in a coloured spotlight.
As with Alone in the Dark, this was a game that required keyboard and mouse controls as well as the headset. This is also where I started experiencing the most problems. Perhaps it was down to the coding and development of the game, but the connect between the mouse movement and headset movement seemed off. I reached the first room easily enough, but half way through the first test I started to feel very ill indeed. I collected a couple of the objects, and looked around with dismay as more of them had spawned all over the various levels of the room. I was unsure I could get them all before being sick. So I didn’t. I stopped where I was, and inside the headset I closed my eyes. My character died, and I was told to just move on to the second room.
The last two rooms passed without incident, and I was allowed to take off the headset and finish the game. I had to answer a questionnaire detailing my reaction to the tests, with questions about the music, fear and sickness being asked. It turns out that the experiment was to examine the use of music in creating anxiety in immersive video games. Mission accomplished, I’d say.
As soon as it was possible I made my way swiftly home, and then after a four hour nap I had properly recovered. I would be very interested to see if the feeling of sickness was unique to me, or whether it was felt by other subjects of the test; the presence of questions about sickness on the questionnaire seem to suggest it was expected to a degree.
All said and done, I was extremely impressed with the Oculus Rift, and impressed with myself for not losing my lunch..