Oculus Rift and the Next Generation.

What defines the jump from one generation to the next? An increase in graphical fidelity was the driving force behind progress for many years – more polygons, better textures and improved animations. The worlds of our games leapt from two dimensions into three, our heroes acquired faces and voices, and our virtual playgrounds were brought to life with shadows, reflections and dynamic lighting. More recently, connectivity has been a dominant factor. On today’s consoles we can play with friends on the other side of the world, post our scores and times to online leaderboards and share our accomplishments with our chums.

Ignoring the Uncanny Valley, graphics are slowly converging towards a point, however, and with social connectivity pretty much nailed, what will distinguish one generation from the next?  Let’s forget about all the guff surrounding a game for a moment and focus on the experience itself. The minute to minute act of simply playing. True, we have better stories and more believable characters than we did ten years ago, but the core experience remains the same. In my eyes, the Oculus Rift is a bold first step towards something very different; the real next generation; experiences that are indistinguishable from reality.

Here’s a vision of a not-too-distant future that’s been rattling round my head recently:

You boot up your machine, sync it with special contact lenses (which we’ll all wear; VR headsets will be dated and made a mockery of by this point), and choose your game from a vast library of titles. Nanomachines in your body are also synced to the platform, giving you biological feedback to your in-game actions. You can smell the air, taste a health potion, and feel a bullet tearing through your flesh (if that kind of thing floats your boat).

All set up, you get down to play. Perhaps you’ll assume the role of a Pharaoh during Egyptian times, or a boisterous street urchin clambering about the cobbled alleys of Victorian London. Maybe you’ll choose to be a hulking space marine in a desperate battle with an alien race, or pilot a space craft through the ruins of a derelict space station. Or perhaps you’ll choose to play an exact simulation of the very world you live in. Except you can fly. And shoot lasers from your eyes.

Whatever. Once the world of the game fills your vision – the entirety of your vision – it’ll be nigh-on impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is reality or not. You’ll look down at lifelike limbs, and the world will react accurately to your movements and interactions. You’ll be able to communicate with NPCs whose AI is on a par with anybody from the real world. Thanks to microscopic sensors, the game will react to the smallest of your facial movements; you could throw a wink to a pretty damsel from Arthurian legend, and she’d offer a shy smile in return.

In a sense, the technology would make time travel possible. You could interact with the worlds from the pages of school-room history books. You could witness the rise of the Roman Empire, explore an Aztec temple or two, chat the breeze with Plato and Galileo, or pull up a deck chair and watch the fateful moment that asteroid wiped out the Dinosaurs. Of course it wouldn’t be real time travel – and you’d avoid that troublesome Grandfather paradox that physicists get their knickers in a twist about – but as far as your senses were concerned, it’d be just like being there.

By this point, the experience will have transcended traditional gaming. You’d be able to explore living, breathing worlds all from the comfort of your living room; you’d be able to adopt a second life. Which of course begs the question: “what if we’re in one of those simulations already?”, but let’s not digress into Matrix-philosophy; I can feel a headache coming on.

Clearly we’re a ways off these optimistic ramblings, but it’s an entirely plausible depiction of what machines will be capable of in the future. And I’d wager it’s a future much closer than you’d anticipate. The Oculus Rift is the first of many steps towards this. Sure, there are obstacles that still need to be overcome in the short term – an increased resolution for the consumer Oculus kit will help dramatically, for example – but it’s incredibly impressive nonetheless. Donning the goggles and being there, in this other place, sat in the cockpit of a transforming space-fighter, is nothing quite like you will have experienced with a game before. Once the tech is tamed and you grow accustomed to games in this manner, it’ll be difficult to go back.

Oculus will iterate over the years, and it won’t be too long before the examples I’ve outlined above are commonplace. In many ways, this is the start of the next generation. It’s not about the bells and whistles attached to slightly better looking games, but a fundamental change in the way we’re brought into the world of a game. There’s a long road ahead – both in terms of how Oculus fits into the current market (which is being pulled in so many different directions that it’s impossible to predict where things will be one year from now, let alone ten) and the competency of the tech itself – but as far as I’m concerned, this is where the next generation begins.

This is the first in a on-going series of features that will be hitting the SSZ blog every Tuesday. Check back next week for more. 

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