I’ve had some brushes with virtual reality before, through prototype Oculi and Google Cardboard — working at a game center has its perks. It’s really cool to be able to see a world around you and look around it; one game in particular had a PS3 controller hooked up so you could move too. All very neat stuff, a little gimicky, sure, but it’s exciting to see that level of immersion.
Then I had the chance to play Epic’s “Bullet Time” tech demo today.
Lemme break it down. You’re wearing an Oculus Rift, a VR headset that also senses your head’s movement so turns with you within a simulated 3D space. In your hands is the Oculus Touch, something sorta like a traditional console controller split in half mixed with a remote. There’s also a sensor that tracks where your hands are, so if you move your hands up, then the hands you see move up too.
“Bullet Time” uses the Touch’s triggers to control your character’s fingers: the one by your middle finger holds on to things, the one beneath your index finger pulls triggers. So if you see a gun lying around (in the headset) you reach towards it (in real life) and grab it with the controller and you grab it in the game. Pull the top trigger to fire, let go of the lower one to drop it. Once you get the hang of it, man, it is immersive. The physicality of it sucks you in like you wouldn’t believe and it’s a fantastic time.
But where it really shines is the sheer number of verbs VR offers.
Games have a certain number of verbs; in the first Halo those verbs are move, shoot, jump, throw a grenade, swap guns, drive, turn your flashlight on/off, and a couple more. The things you can do are limited to the controller and, for the most part, it’s enough for a great game. “Bullet Time” has a different set of verbs, there’s still ‘shoot,’ but ‘move’ is dropped in favor of the ability to teleport to different pre-defined spots (it is a tech demo, after all). The fact that you can move your arms independently, however, are where things get really interesting.
In a normal shooter, you shoot where you’re looking. In “Bullet Time” you shoot where your gun is pointed. Can you shoot behind you? Yes. Can you grab two pistols and fire them in opposite directions? Yes. Suddenly there’s a lot more freedom to how you’re doing the shooting in what could be a very normal on-rails shooter.
The grab mechanic, though, is what really opens it up. You can grab bullets fired at you out of the air and throw them back at the shooter, something that gives you a whole lotta satisfaction — I actually paused for a second the first time I grabbed a bullet, pleasantly surprised that I’d actually managed to catch it in what felt like my hand. You can grab and throw grenades at people or, if you want, guns. The game registers the force behind your motions and translates it appropriately.
So naturally I asked myself a very simple question: If I lightly tossed an AK-47 in the air, could I grab it with my other hand? Turns out that yes, you can, and juggling a virtual AK is a lotta fun. A sorta fun that probably wasn’t intended by Epic when they made the game.
Having a wide range of verbs allows for a huge amount of freedom. Look at Dungeons and Dragons; it’s table-top and imagination-based nature lets players do anything their Game Master will let them. Video games are, for the most part, limited by the number of actions developers can map to the controllers. But VR like the Oculus stands to really change it all up. I can honestly now say that VR’s really cool tech and I do look forward to what it means for games and art — imagine that, a 3D space you can interact with at will.
A Holodeck might just be closer than we thought.