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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.

Seebright

Then there's Seebright. Seebright's device also requires you to slot in your own screen, this time taking advantage of the cell phone in your pocket. The company wants to support as many phones as possible at launch, including the iPhone and top Android devices.

Though the prototype has been in development for a while now, Seebright is in some ways a reaction to the Oculus Rift. The Rift is closed-off, isolationist, consuming you in its virtual world. With Seebright, your face remains uncovered. The game itself is bounced onto a mirror positioned in front of your eyes, allowing you to play while still keeping a view of the outside world.

Pros: You can wear glasses. Cons: The unit is heavy and cumbersome to set up, and even once it's set up properly the image is fuzzy and indistinct.

So there you have it: One headset enters. Four headsets leave. Quite a tumultuous week in the virtual reality space! But the VR explosion didn't end with headsets alone.

Peripherals

Beyond VR headsets themselves, the next big question is "How do we control all these great virtual reality experiences?" Obviously you can't see a keyboard or a controller with an enormous box over your eyes, and although longtime players like me can handle a controller just by feel, it's not the most approachable input method.

Virtuix's Omni treadmill — a full-body VR controller, essentially — was back at GDC in full force. When I first tried the Omni at E3 last year they were using prototype shoes hacked together with after-market parts and tracking movement with a Kinect. Then when I saw it in August, I had to strap some controllers onto my legs to sense movement. In other words: Omni was always a cool demo, but the experience needed work.

This time around, the Omni was using professional-looking shoes with capacitive sensors. The difference is night and day. There's still a bit of input lag, and there's still an occasional tendency to drift left or right when you put a foot down off-center and the base accidentally registers a footfall, but the Omni has gone from "a promising Kickstarter-backed tech demo" to "a legitimate product that anyone could use and buy."

A small flood of in-hand motion control devices were on show at GDC. I watched people use a few but didn't bother trying any — they all seem about on a par with the Razer Hydra, which is a decent, but still-flawed piece of tech. For now it looks like we're stuck with gamepads, though with the amount of companies and money tackling this problem, I've no doubt that won't be the case for long.

 

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