"When people have sort of hacked together first-person demos with head mounts before, they usually have to wind up pretending they're a mouse, which gives you this very limited interface," master of the Doom franchise John Carmack told me in a meeting during QuakeCon 2012. "It's like using it as a controller rather than really looking into the world."
Carmack would like to fix that, and he is now working with Palmer Luckey and the highly talked about Oculus Rift in order to do so. By combining Luckey's hardware with Carmack's software, they hope to remove a lot of barriers gamers typically experience when trying to immerse themselves in a virtual world.
When I put on the VR headset to look into the new and improved world of Doom 3 BFG Edition, I almost lost balance. My brain seemed to be fighting with itself in terms of where my body was, physically. I knew I was standing in a hotel room of the Hilton Anatole and that moving my feet wouldn't have any impact on my gameplay, while at the same time I felt like I was running through corridors on Mars, dodging fireballs from imps as I played Doom. I considered sitting down, but Carmack promised the experience was better standing. I could feel my body shifting as if it might fall over, and for a brief moment I worried that motion sickness would come next.
It didn't. After a few minutes of play I was able to adjust to the sensation of looking around with my head while moving with the Xbox 360 controller in my hand. The right stick of the controller would turn left to right (so that I wouldn't need to physically turn in circles while playing, a feat that was technically possible but would have resulted in me tripping on wires), but moving up and down would only move the gun, not my view. If I wanted to look up I had to physically tilt my head, whether I was climbing a ladder, shooting a flying enemy or preparing to toss a grenade.
Once I had all of this down, the experience was incredibly immersive. Playing Doom 3 BFG Edition with a controller alone doesn't feel like anything new. Playing it with this VR headset made it feel like a gaming revelation. Granted, I probably only spent 10 minutes at most with the device on my head, so it's hard to say how long the feeling would last over long periods of time, but it was still undeniably cool.
Don't go rushing off to buy the $300 unit (available by backing the Kickstarter) unless you're a developer, though. While Carmack has said that Doom 4 will support the Oculus Rift, and Minecraft developer Notch has also expressed excitement over Twitter, for the time being there is only one game you can play with the headset: Doom 3 BFG Edition. On top of that, there are still a lot of tweaks and features that Carmack would like to see in a later, more consumer-friendly product.
One thing brought up several times during our talk was accurate position tracking, which would mean that if you duck or lean in the real world, the VR headset would track that and the game could react accordingly. "We can do that with a different sensor setup," Carmack said, "if we integrate the Razer Hydra stuff in there. But that's one more cable and box and stuff."
Perhaps looking further into the future, another thing Carmack would like to do "is to take something like this and put two cameras – basically cell phone cameras – on the front, so you can have pass-through Augmented Reality where you annotate the world through there," he told me. "That's all interesting, but my main purpose for it is to give the position tracking stuff with optics and then to be able to do inside-out Kinect-type stuff. What you want to be able to do is bring your hands up in front of it and see them rendered in the world, look down and have it recognize your skeleton and render that into the world." It sounds like the kind of stuff gamers have dreamed about since the early days of the industry.
According to Carmack these concepts are all doable. It's just going to take some cooperation with hardware-minded people like Palmer Luckey. Luckey, who showed up to the 'Virtual Insanity' QuakeCon panel in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, almost looks too young to be tackling such huge problems. He looked a bit like a kid even next to Carmack, who will probably still look young when he's 120 on the heels of inventing some sort of fountain of youth in his free time. But once I heard the two talking on stage with Michael Abrash of Valve Software, I got the feeling that these are the right people for the job.
"I think people will look back and say 2012 is when the ball really got rolling" for VR, Carmack said not long after I tried the prototype unit myself. If things go according to plan, it may not be too long until you can grab an Oculus Rift off a store shelf and see if he's right.