Virtual reality (hereinafter "VR") as entertainment, as neat and futuristic as it sounds, doesn't have the best track record to date. These days it's most commonly associated with clunky, failed ventures like Nintendo's ill-conceived Virtual Boy, and with the Oculus Rift headset still in development and ultra-expensive, truly immersive VR has remained the stuff of pipe dreams for the general consumer.
But a major sea change in that perception might be coming very soon if Danfung Dennis, the founder and CEO of Condition One, has anything to say about it. Condition One is a relatively new "visual technology" startup dedicated to the development of immersive visual media for wearable VR headsets, including the Oculus Rift. In layman's terms: these folks are making immersive, "feel like you're there" movie-like experiences specifically for virtual reality headsets, and Dennis believes their work could change the face of entertainment media forever.
A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to sit down with Dennis and an Oculus Rift headset to watch a small portion of "Zero Point," the first-ever movie built specifically for the Oculus Rift that is currently in the works at Condition One. Having never tried the Oculus Rift before that, I didn't quite know what I was in for, but it ended up being a pretty compelling experience!
The demo I watched was split into two parts: a military training exercise held at Camp Pendleton, California and a first-person tour of a portion of E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) 2013's show floor. The military portion was by far the more interesting of the two, as wearing the Oculus Rift headset, it really did feel as if I had been transported right into the middle of that training exercise; gunfire and the frantic yelling of squad orders rang out in my ears as I looked all around me in real time to see what was going on outside of my immediate field of vision. It was being able to check out my surroundings with natural head movements -- just as I would if I were there in real life -- that really sold the experience, though, and it's something that is admittedly hard to translate into words. Reading about it just isn't the same, I can assure you that much.
The E3 2013 show floor portion was a little less compelling simply because walking an overcrowded convention center floor is by its very nature less interesting than finding oneself in the middle of a military training exercise in progress, but for people who have not been to E3 but have always wanted to go, I can see this being quite fun. It certainly felt like I was more or less there, as I immediately recognized many of the sights I remember from being there in person last year. This portion of the demo wasn't quite as immersive, as the viewable area wasn't nearly 360 degrees -- turning my head far enough left or right resulted in my seeing immersion-killing black bars. Dennis explained to me, however, that this is just because this portion was filmed with an earlier version of their camera rig and that the final cut of "Zero Point" would be fully reflective of the full 360-degree VR experience of the military segment.
It wasn't perfect, of course. The demo I watched was not exactly high definition, with scan lines and other imperfections clearly visible in the headset, which even Dennis readily admitted ruins the immersion and is not good enough for virtual reality entertainment. But Dennis, for his part, just sees these things as challenges to be invariably and inevitably surmounted: he reaffirmed to me several times that this is a work-in-progress, and that for the final consumer version of "Zero Point," he will settle for nothing less than full-resolution 3D video running at 60 frames per second, which he considers the bare minimum for an immersive virtual reality experience via the Oculus Rift. Those are lofty standards, to be sure, but Dennis made me believe he meant every word and really won't settle for anything less.
During our short conversation, Dennis made it very clear to me that he utterly and fully believes in virtual reality as the future of entertainment media consumption and that the Oculus Rift will "upend the tea table" in terms of the way we watch our movies and play our video games. While I may not yet be quite as convinced of that as he is, there's no denying that I walked away from my "Zero Point" demo impressed and intrigued, looking forward to the next time I'd get to experience VR entertainment via the Oculus Rift. It certainly does feel as if virtual reality - long regarded as unrealistically futuristic - is almost here, ready for widespread consumption in the present.
While it's unlikely that the Rift will immediately change the face of entertainment media as we know it upon its release, Dennis and his associates at Condition One are working hard on "Zero Point" to ensure that at the very least, VR entertainment is here to stay this time. The Virtual Boy this is not.
I have embedded a regular version of the new "Zero Point" trailer right here within this article for your viewing pleasure, but I recommend you head here and watch the unique "interactive" version of the trailer instead, which lets you use your mouse or trackpad to simulate the experience of turning your head in the Oculus Rift headset. It's definitely still not the same, but it's a decent compromise!
All this said, this is a video game blog and I'm not usually in the business of writing about films, so what does all this mean for us gamers? Well, if "Zero Point" ends up being as immersive as Dennis is promising - and based on my demo time, I believe it can be - it could lead to the development of some incredibly compelling gaming content in which we really do experience fantastical game worlds from an realistic, "you're there" viewpoint. Just take these Oculus Rift demos of Pokémon Gold/Silver and the original The Legend of Zelda for example; the Oculus Rift isn't even out yet, and these demos -- created specifically for the promising VR headset -- enable us to see beloved, classic game worlds from a whole new, real-life perspective. If you told me years ago that one day I'd get to see Pokémon's Johto region or Hyrule as seen on the original NES from a first-person perspective in virtual reality, I'd have laughed you out of the room; but these demos prove that not only is it possible, it's happening. (There will undoubtedly be legal issues associated with these efforts when the consumer version of the Rift goes on sale, but that's a different story for another time.) I wish I had a Rift to try these demos out for myself, but the videos at the above links provide close enough approximations.
So between my time experiencing the Oculus Rift with the "Zero Point" demo and the wild gaming potential displayed in the in-progress "Oculus Rift editions" of The Legend of Zelda and Pokémon Gold/Silver linked above, you'd better believe I'm excited about the Rift from a gaming standpoint. Now we just need someone as enthusiastic about VR gaming as Dennis is about VR films to start developing exciting, original gaming content for the Oculus Rift!