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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.

Games and... film?

And finally, there's the sea change in the actual conference. Oculus Rift-enabled games are absolutely everywhere. I demoed space simulator Elite: Dangerous earlier this week and spent a solid fifteen minutes or so of my pilot career strapped into the Rift. Everywhere you go, developers are huddled in corners showing off demos of their new Rift games — whether officially, at their booths, or unofficially in harried, "Please, would you check out my game?" meetings.

There's even a film built for the Oculus Rift. I briefly wrote about Zero Point before, but I finally got to demo it at GDC. Condition One has melded computer graphics with real footage, shot on the company's proprietary camera, and it's like no movie I've ever seen. Imagine sitting in an IMAX Dome theater, alone, and there's no image distortion around the edges.

Most of the film was shot on Condition One's old prototype camera, and thus doesn't actually provide a 360-degree view of the action — it's more like a panoramic 180 degrees. These include sections where you walk around E3, watch people talk about virtual reality tech to the camera, and a terrifying part (seriously, I got vertigo while sitting in an office chair in a brightly-lit convention hall) where the camera flies off a cliff, courtesy of a drone.

Then at one point you're put in the middle of a military training exercise, which was shot with a full 360-degree view of the action. There's still an awkward black circle on the bottom and top, similar to Google Maps, but your normal field of view is completely unhindered. You can turn around and watch the guy getting into cover behind you, then hurriedly turn back when gunshots erupt over your left shoulder.

It's hard to know what filmmakers will do with the technology. It's expensive, the footage takes up a lot of storage space, and you can't use most of the tools developed for modern cinema (lights, boom poles, etc.). But as a proof of concept, it's incredibly exciting.

To infinity and beyond!

Heck, everything about this crazy, virtual future we're building is exciting. I've yet to meet one person who tried out EVE: Valkyrie on the Oculus and wasn't amazed by it, or one person who hasn't said "I felt a bit sick, but the experience was incredible." It's no wonder our industry, and thus GDC, is enraptured by the prospect.

There's still plenty of work to be done, but 2014 is undeniably the year that GDC went virtual. And with this much progress since the original Oculus Rift Dev Kit last year, which now seems almost like a toy? Well, I can't wait to see what next year holds.


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