Back to the future with Doom 3, John Carmack and the Oculus Rift

In a journalistic sphere that's prone to hyperbole, the term "game changer" is one we hear too damn often. Then again, the opportunity to play Doom 3: BFG Edition in a 3D VR headset doesn't come along terribly often. At Quakecon, that's exactly what we got to do.

Sitting down with John Carmack, id Software's Co-Founder and Technical Director, is an experience in itself. Carmack is a living legend who is credited, along with his team at id, for making first person shooters a thing with Wolfenstein 3D. Even as he approaches his 42nd birthday, his aura is that of a whiz kid whose enthusiasm is unmatchable.

At Quakecon, Carmack showed us an engineering prototype of the Oculus Rift, the wildly successful Kickstarter project started by Palmer Luckey and the rest of Oculus.

John Carmack Narrates The Future

The appointment ahead of mine had yet to finish when I arrived at the hotel suite where I was to see the Rift in action. It was a motley scene, as Carmack and the journalist using the headset were standing next to each other, with Carmack holding a coil of three cables that descended from the headset to a PC next to him. He was smirking, something that he continued to do throughout the demonstration. The journalist had the headset on, clueless to reality and craning his neck in small, measured movements that he often moved the Xbox controller in conjunction with.

The prototype used in the demonstration was comically low-fi, with parts held together by duct tape, hot glue and an appropriated strap from a pair of Oakleys. That part didn't much matter, though. The journalist ahead was so engrossed in the experience that there was drool in the corners of his mouth by the time that he finished the demo of Doom 3.

At that point, Carmack set the headset down, and remained smirking. John Carmack has a special way of weaving through complex topics. He does not sanitize technical terms, and laymen, like me, can have trouble keeping up. It's fascinating to hear him speak, though; he has an unbridled passion for the topic at hand, with a mind that is constantly working towards solutions. The way he churns through topics is computer-like; it's easy to imagine a processor (a powerful one) working through data in much the same way.

In the '90s, Carmack was as enthusiastic for virtual reality as the rest of the geek world. The underlying technology had yet to catch up to the ideas, and many of the companies behind the earlier tech have long since folded, or have been consumed by larger outfits that make military-styled headsets for the Department of Defense. Carmack has backed the Oculus Rift because he says it is the first VR headset that crosses a threshold of "useful coolness."

It was one of the few moments that Carmack was refreshingly colloquial. What actually makes the Oculus Rift possible, may surprise you. Two markets that have exploded in the last five years have given birth to the technology that is bringing virtual reality back. Those two markets: smartphones and motion controllers for video games. The former for the development of small, high-resolution screens, and the latter for advanced gyroscopes and other sensors becoming alarmingly cheap. It's economies of scale at work, folks.

The Rift works in a fairly straightforward manner. Each eye gets a stereoscopic 3D screen that renders at 640x800, granting a full resolution of 1280x800. The television screen that the PC was running through projected the same two images that the headset received. On the screen, the image was split vertically, each showing two identical gameplay streams. There was an odd fisheye effect to the images on the TV. Carmack explained that the image was pre-warped so that the optics of the Rift could view it correctly.

The Rift also packs sensors that detect head movements. It does not, however track the head's absolute position. Think of it this way, nodding is a go, Crouching is not. The design is, at this stage, unsurprisingly unergonomic. The weight is front-loaded, so the headset pinches the bridge of the nose a bit. It's forgivable though, considering the unassuming, duct-taped together carriage for some of the coolest tech that's approaching the market.

Carmack Oculus Rift 02.jpg

Face-On With The Oculus Rift

Doom 3 is a first person shooter. The genre, by nature, is arguably the most immersive in gaming. It is perhaps the best suited for VR, which lends itself to a first person perspective.

That immersion is unquestionably amplified by the Oculus Rift. It is, after all, right on your face. The stereoscopic 3D works and works well. The picture is a bit blurry; 720p can't quite deliver when it's a mere inch or two from your eyes. That problem will be solved quickly, however: Carmack says that his top priority is getting top of the line OLED panels with a 120Hz refresh rate inside the Rift. Presumably those panels would kick things up to 1080p or better.

The controls are workable, interesting and impressive. Doom 3 handles largely the same as if I were playing it with only a dual analog controller. There were a few key differences. While the left analog stick, as per tradition, controls the character's legs, the right analog stick changes duties here. Traditionally, the right analog stick controls the head and one's aim. Playing Doom with the Oculus Rift, there's no need for the player's view and aim to stay married. The right analog stick controls the gun's position, while your own head is gifted with the power to look around the game world. This gives birth to interesting trends, like lowering your gun to have more screen space when out of engagements, and snapping the gun back into view when baddies turn up. It's not only nifty, it enhances gameplay in a meaningful way.

Looking around the game world is incredibly liberating. The Rift grants an incredibly wide field of view, and looking upwards and downwards is no longer awkward because your gun isn't strangely attached to the character's bottom jaw. Blasting baddies took little adjustment, though I got the sense that the game's difficulty was on one of its lowest settings. There were some visually awkward moments: certain textures clearly weren't meant to be seen in 3D, and cutscenes with facial close-ups were especially disorienting because the person in the frame was close enough to kiss; something that's unnerving in all of the wrong ways for a horror game. The takeaway here is that, as you'd imagine, you won't be able to play any game with the Rift headset and not run into snags. It's an experience that needs to be developed for, and that means the overall experience will be shaped by what games are either for optimized, or made expressly for the hardware.

Back To Reality

The negatives we encountered fell by the wayside of the experience. Doom 3 and the Oculus Rift are the real deal. Virtual reality has arrived, and it's finally brilliant. With no grains of salt nearby, a VR headest, whether the Rift or some future competitor, will offer a completely new gaming experience in the near future. It's that good already, and its potential has just begun to be tapped.

To temper your expectations: the Rift is far from a consumer-grade product. Even the Rift dev kits available through the Kickstarter are just that; kits designed for developers. As we all know, content is king and the Rift only has one game to its name. Granted, Carmack did say that the Rift would be id's "secret weapon" when the time finally came to show Doom 4 to the press. On that note, next year's Quakecon became a must-attend event.

On the sunny side of it all, the game development community is quickly rallying behind the Oculus Rift; Epic, Valve and obviously id have already pledged support. Given support from PC gaming's top names and a Kickstarter that has edged beyond earning six-fold its initial goal, we'd say that the Oculus Rift has an incredibly bright future ahead.

Via Quakecon 2012

All photos by Nathaniel Wattenmaker for DVICE.

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