Sunday, June 21, 2015

E3 2015 Coverage (Part 3: Virtual & Augmented Reality)

Welcome to What They Call Games' first year of E3 coverage, directly from the show floor! I already detailed my impressions of the demos I played and now it's on to the highlight of the show for me: Virtual (and Augmented) Reality! 

Table of Contents:
Part 1: Nintendo Games
Part 2: More Games
Part 3: Virtual & Augmented Reality - You are here

Virtual Reality

Project Morpheus (PS4) - "Kitchen" (Horror tech demo)
Holy crap, Morpheus is amazing. This was my first experience with VR and it felt like the same kind of leap in gaming technology as the jump from 2D to 3D for me. It was so immersive that I wanted to close my eyes at points since it was so creepy and real (I didn't though). It was also the only demo that made me want to immediately jump back in line to try it again, although on a different game if possible.

Anyway, "Kitchen" is a horror tech demo in which your hands are tied and you're stuck in a chair in a creepy run-down kitchen. You can use your PS4 controller's motion controls to move your hands around, but otherwise you just watch helplessly as the scene unfolds around you. To start the demo, I had to knock over a camera that's positioned on a tripod in front of me by flinging your hands forward. Then, I noticed another guy in the room who was sort of stumbling around who then grabbed a machete and headed toward me. I thought he was an enemy at first, but it turned out he was in the same boat as me and offered to cut the ropes binding my hands (at which point I had to put my hands/the controller up for him to cut my bonds). This new buddy wasn't in the best of shape though, so he had a bit of trouble cutting the ropes. In fact, he had so much trouble that before he could finish, a creepy girl appeared in the background, sneaked up on him, and dragged him away screaming around the corner. As expected, my buddy was totally screwed, because a few seconds later, his disembodied head was tossed back into the kitchen in front of me. All I could do was watch as it slowly bled out and wonder when and from where the creepy girl would be coming back for me. Sure enough, she came from behind, blocking my vision with two bloody hands before moving around in front of me to taunt me with the now glistening machete right in my face. At this point I wanted to close my eyes because, I mean, I was about to get stabbed in the face! But I watched just a bit longer to see the girl lunge at me and everything go black - the end of the demo. So basically I guess you could call it a waifu simulator.

Technically speaking, the scene filled my entire vision and turning my head convincingly turned the view with it. Moving the controller to move my hands also worked fairly well, although there were points where my hands didn't seem to be quite where I expected them to be. The only issues I had otherwise were that my glasses felt pressed uncomfortably to my face and that I was able to see the texture of the screen if I made an effort to focus on it. The scene also looked slightly blurred, but this may have been because the headset wasn't perfectly adjusted or because it was the atmosphere of the game (my character was probably out of it and had blurred vision). Overall though, as I said, Morpheus blew my mind and I'd love to try it again.

Ant VR

Having tried Morpheus, I was on the hunt for more VR experiences. Ant VR was what I found next and it had a pretty short line... for good reason. This demo was of a rudimentary one on one first person shooter. You could look around by actually looking around and move and aim using a one-handed controller with you could point like a gun. The controller had a trigger and joystick nub as well, but it felt cheaply made and the joystick would often not respond. Not only that, but after only a couple minutes of playing, I started feeling sick to my stomach. I thought that this could've been because I hadn't eaten or drunk much and was also running on little sleep, but the nausea cleared up after I stopped the demo and I also heard that other people experienced the same discomfort. In any case, in it's current state, I wouldn't recommend Ant VR.

Samsung Gear VR
Yep, that's me. Yep, I'm acting more into it than I really am.
With the Oculus Rift line limited to people with reservations and a wait too long to fit into Day 2, I settled for trying the Oculus and Samsung phone-powered Gear VR. I had pretty low expectations going in, but Gear VR actually worked really well. It convincingly filled my vision, turned with my head, and came with a pretty decent controller in addition to the touch pad and button on the side of the headset. One downside was that I had to take off my glasses to use it, but it did have a focus slider which helped to keep things clear even without my glasses on (but the efficacy of this would likely vary for each person). Obviously the games weren't as graphically impressive as the other VR offerings since these all had to run on a smart phone, but even still, they were fun to try.

I only had seven minutes to work with, so I tried three games (of which I forgot the names). The first game I tried was a flying and shooting game where I controlled a fighter plane with the tilt of my head and shot at various targets. It was pretty neat. The second game had me sitting in a jet-pack chair which I could fly around a city of simple polygonal graphics, through rings, and stuff like that. And the third game was a simple hack-n-slash top-down RPG (this one I remember was called Shironeko). It didn't seem like the sort of game you'd normally use VR for, but it was actually pretty cool because moving your head would change the angle you were looking at it from. It was like having a board game positioned in front of you with actual moving characters on it.

So, anyway, Gear VR may not be Morpheus or Oculus Rift, but for what it is, it works impressively well. I'd want one.

Oculus Rift Rabbids VR Ride (Dev Kit 2) 
Unfortunately, I never did get the chance to play any of the big name Oculus Rift demos, but I did find this Rabbids demo off in a different area from the rest of the Oculus stuff. Rather than a game, this was more like the sort of thing you'd expect to see at an amusement park. The ride begins in a dark room which gradually lights up in different areas to reveal the maniacal Rabbids hard at work. It doesn't take long to realize they're hard at work knocking the sled you're sitting on loose to careen down the snowy mountain waiting just outside the doors ahead of you. From then on, it's a wild ride of jumps, spins, half-pipes, and cliffs with lots of silly Rabbid shenanigans along the way. Not only can you look around throughout the whole ride using the Oculus Rift, but this ride added to the immersion by having a chair that tilted according to which part of the simulation you were in (and a fan blowing at you too). Even though the chair only tilted up or down a few inches in each direction, the VR was so convincing that I actually felt the same sensation as being on a roller coaster. When going down a particularly steep hill or plunging over the edge of a cliff, I felt that tension in my chest and took an involuntary breath. Even though the graphics were stylized rather than realistic, I still felt very much like I was in the world of the simulation. It was a blast and I wish I could've tried the other Oculus Rift demos to see how they compared. Also, maybe it was because this demo had very little downtime, but I didn't notice any of the minor issues (such as blurriness and being able to see the screen texture) that I had with Morpheus on this demo.

Augmented Reality

Hololens + Halo 5 (XB1)
Finally, I was able to try Microsoft's HoloLens after a more than 4 1/2 hour long wait (and that was after running to get in line as soon as the doors opened). Rather than the virtual reality of Oculus and Morpheus, the HoloLens headset and glasses overlay what appear to be holograms over real life. These "holograms" look like they're really there in front of you and can be viewed from any angle as you move around them.

The HoloLens demonstration began while we were still in line with "lab technicians" in white lab coats measuring the distance between our pupils for better fitting of the headset. The demo area itself was set up like the inside of a large space ship. We started in a small room with several chairs around one side and shelves of HoloLens headsets in the middle. One at a time, we were fitted for our headsets and adjusted them so that we could see four dots in the corners of our vision. From there, the HoloLens directed us with hovering waypoints which we walked to (in real life) down the hall. Just like in a video game, they floated in midair and counted down the distance between us and them. Reaching the first made a second one appear further down the hall. After turning the first corner, I was directed to look out of a hatch (actually just a solid wall which appeared to open through the Lens) where I was able to see into a large hangar bay and look around from different angles. After this, the rest of my team gathered with me in a circle in the briefing room with a hologram in the center (pictured above). Here we received instructions for the upcoming Halo 5 demo (which I described in detail on the previous page) on the various enemies which would appear, the map we would play on, and key points on that map. All of this appeared only through the HoloLens and could be viewed from any angle. Some of the models even appeared to come up out of or disappear into the center table. Once that was over, we were disappointingly instructed to remove our headsets and head in to actually play Halo 5.

I have to say that the technology is pretty impressive and I'd love to try using it in different ways (Skyping with someone who appears to really across from you, for example). Unfortunately, HoloLens wasn't without issues. I don't know if these issues were caused by my eyesight and having glasses or by the headset not being properly adjusted, but I consistently had a problem with the HoloLens image only being visible on the top half of my vision. In order to see all of a particular hologram, I felt the need to tilt my head forward and look out just the top of the Lens like an old librarian looking over her glasses. This totally broke the sense of realism for me and made it painfully obvious that these holograms weren't really there. I tried to readjust the position of the headset myself to account for this, but my glasses didn't really leave room for it to move any further in the direction it needed to go. I mentioned this issue to one of the attendants, but their only advice was to try backing up a bit, which only really solved the problem by containing the hologram to the top half of my vision. Once again, this may have just been a problem with how the headset was adjusted to me, but if it takes pupil measurements and complex adjustments just to get it to work, it makes me wonder how well this will work for the average consumer. Without those issues though, I could see HoloLens really taking off and being used in some really cool ways.

That's it for all the VR and AR demos I tried at E3 2015! It was the highlight of the trip for me, for sure, and I found myself wanting to try everything I could in VR. I think that rather than buying a new console, my next big gaming purchase may have to be a VR headset.

This also marks the end of my E3 2015 demo impressions, but if you want to keep on reading, I'll also be writing about my general experience at E3, including people I met, freebies I received, and generally what it's like to be there in person. Stay tuned! (Article currently in progress)

Part 1: Nintendo Games
Part 2: More Games
Part 3: Virtual & Augmented Reality - You are here
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