Hands-on with The Future: Carmack’s Virtual Insanity

Despite the smell, I assumed this is what all those other pioneers felt when they were breaching the future. Magellan, Bushnell, the guy that invented the Pet Rock. All of them stood where I was standing: the precipice of a new era of humanity. But oh if they could see what I could see.

I’m looking at things that never were, not are, nor ever will be and all of it is so real. I can turn my head and look down the corridors of a hell-infested Martian research space station; I’m holding advanced firepower in my meaty space marine hands; and I’m totally instilled with fear. It is almost crippling, in fact. I hesitate to even move lest this be the end of my brief sojourn into the future.

All of which is weird to think about knowing that there’s a blacked out pair of duct tape and hot glue-ridden ski goggles strapped to my face, the source of my inevitable sickness next week as it is literally drenched in germ-laden sweat and pizza grease. I am at QuakeCon 2012 and I’ve just gone hands-on (face-on?) with the Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality device that surpasses all other known technology that dares call itself virtual reality. Well, as far as I know since SIGGRAPH is this week, but as far as what you can get your hands on now and in the near future, the Rift is where it’s at. Built by the Oculus guys out of Los Angeles, California, this headset is more impressive than you realize. It has six degrees of freedom with ~20 milliseconds of latency for head tracking, a 90-degree horizontal field of view, and a 1280×800 resolution display (640×800 per eye). When you compare that to other devices that have upwards of 100ms of latency, no head tracking, a 45-degree field of view, or a 480×320 display, you realize what they’ve managed to achieve here.

Well, them and John Carmack, co-founder of id Software and one of the smartest people on the planet. What started out as a side project (one of his many personal endeavors, which include Armadillo Aerospace, an aerospace startup he started born from his desire to shoot things into space) has rapidly evolved into a handheld time machine to the magical future. Follow his Twitter or listen to his 4-hour keynote and you’ll know that this is the man to get us there.

He talks passionately and knowingly of programming language limitations and quirks, data structure pros and cons, complex matrix projections and applications, and the inner workings of human eye. He talks about writing a shader to distort normally flat planar scenes into proper fish-eyed views as if it were as easy as breathing. He tested out direct laser input to his own god damn eyeballs. He even finds time to point out the absurdity of super optimizing JavaScript.

Lucky for us he likes video games. He actually decided to bring his virtual reality dreams to fruition by using Doom 3 as his testbed. With his game and his software powering Oculus founder’s Palmer Luckey’s hardware, Carmack brings Mars City to virtual life.

And, almost expectedly, it works. Sure, the stereoscopic images provide a profound sense of depth, but the fact that the Rift encompasses your entire vision and nearly replicates your entire three-dimensional field of view (humans have a nearly 180-degree field of view, but only the middle portion is binocular for depth perception) really brings you into the world laid out before you.

In fact, when I first put on the headset and begin to look around, my sense of balance is almost immediately thrown for a loop. I have to make a concerted effort not to face-plant onto the table in front of me and ruin this otherwise magical moment.

But I refuse to take a seat because this loss of real world relativity is important to me; it means that I am fully immersed in the device. Anything out of the goggles don’t exist to me save for the unwashed stench of the convention surrounding me. When I shoot, I don’t use the right analog stick to aim but rather the yawing, pitching, and rolling of my head. Wherever I look, the game points me, allowing me to explore real world locations as I normally would. This is vastly different from the head tracking setups like the TrackIR which require you to only minutely move your head as it multiplies your motions and you peer out of your peripheral vision to see what you want to see. The Rift is something else altogether; it is your vision.

Every time a Hell Knight would come out at me, I could feel my actual body lean backwards as I retreat away from the hell spawn. I know I’m just running backwards in the game, but my mind is telling my body that it needs to compensate for the corresponding evasion. Every time an energy ball came my way, I would strafe left and right with my body swaying right and left. Unprepared and unbalanced, I would have undoubtedly tumbled to the floor.

This isn’t just your usual futile leaning around corners in video games. This is instead a very real subconscious, physiological response to what my eyes are telling my brain. My mind has become Carmack’s playground.

But even at that he isn’t satisfied. No, Carmack wants to achieve so much more. Virtual reality vision? Pft, that’s nothing compared to the virtual reality reality he has planned. One day, the headset will bear a 120Hz OLED display with zero latency. It’ll have cameras that can track the arms and legs of the user and represent that in-game. Optical eye tracking will be in place so subtle shifts in perspective and focus (it’s all at infinity at this point) can be accurately executed. You’ll have neuron-stimulating electrodes on your head that will tell your brain what you’re supposed to feel.

And that’s not even that far off from the current situation. The Kinect, Galvanic vestibular stimulation, and computer vision are all a reality now. It’s just an issue of getting it integrated cheaply and effectively with the Rift.

Though a dirty word now in game criticism, Carmack and Oculus’ ultimate goal is total immersion. You won’t be able to tell where you end and virtual reality begins, a notion that has an insane amount of people excited. The Oculus Rift Kickstarter has 25 days left and is already at $1.3 million, well past its initial $250,000 goal. Though the Kickstarter is explicitly details as a kit for developers, Luckey estimates that about at least third of the backers just want a piece of today’s news and tomorrow’s promise with no intention to further or knowledge of development. But can you really blame them? This is the future, after all.

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