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To Oculus and beyond: Peering into the future of virtual reality at GDC 2014

Hayden Dingman | March 24, 2014
It's hard to believe it was barely a year ago when the first Oculus Rift prototypes shipped to developers. Shortly thereafter, the first tentative games arrived, more stabs in the dark than real products--experiments in this untested frontier. Where would the limits come? Who would develop the first mass-production game for virtual reality? No one knew.

But there are challengers. I tried out three.

Project Morpheus

On the console side of things, Sony's Project Morpheus also debuted at GDC on Tuesday.

That slick-looking device will be PlayStation 4-only, and is said to be better than the Oculus Rift's original Developers Kit (though that's not exactly the highest bar at this point). Sony's also not expecting to ship Morpheus until 2015 — a much safer move than most of these virtual reality models, which are racing to market presumably to beat Oculus into consumer's hands.

The incredible EVE: Valkyrie space dogfighting game, which will debut as an Oculus Rift launch exclusive, will also make its way to Project Morpheus... someday. Sony also showed off a Morpheus-enabled demo of Thief at GDC.

Oh, and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey warmly welcomed Project Morpheus to the burgeoning VR family. Group hug!

The Cortex

The two other VR headsets I tried take a more mobile-focused slant on virtual reality.

Sulon showed off a prototype of The Cortex, which it's billing as a holodeck-like device. It's a virtual-reality/alternate-reality hybrid, with an external-facing camera attached to the top. Put on the unit and the camera maps the walls of whatever space you're in and then plasters textures over top.

For my demo we were in a hotel room, but slipping on the headset suddenly thrust me into an alien spacecraft with a room shaped exactly like the physical hotel room I was in. And because of the camera, The Cortex allows you to walk around the space in real life, and your motions translate to the game.

It was an interesting piece of tech, even though the prototype I wore felt bulky. However it's hard to get over the mental hurdle that comes with walking in virtual reality — "What if the device messes up and I walk head-first into a wall?" was the constant refrain in my head. It's a bit dizzying.

There's no "screen" in The Cortex, per se. Rather, you slot your own Android device into the headset in order to start playing. That makes it hard for me to talk about things like "resolution" and "low-persistence" because depending on what the unit's basic requirements are, you could be using any of a number of devices.

And because the device maps to any environment, it's a bit hard to envision games that are any different from the light-gun, arcade-esque zombie shooter I played on it. It's hard to script anything meaningful when you don't know whether the player is going to be sitting outside (which Sulon confirmed would work) or in a broom closet.

Suffice it to say, it doesn't look as pretty as the Oculus — nor is the experience as seamless. They have time to improve the situation before release, but the holodeck this is not.


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