Twenty years ago, when books like Snow Crash and Neuromancer captured the dreams of a generation of nerds, a future spent wearing head-mounted goggles living and working in virtual worlds seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, it's the future, and the whole virtual reality thing hasn't taken off... at least, not yet.
Palmer Luckey wants to change that. The brain behind the Oculus Rift, Palmer has identified and (hopefully) solved the big problems with most current head-mounted displays: inadequate field of vision and laggy head tracking. Instead of projecting an image that fills your field of vision and immerses you in whatever you're looking at, current goggles project a virtual screen that appears to be 20 feet away. Instead of a massive, eyeball-filling image, goggles like the Sony HMZ-T1P make it feel like you're sitting in the middle of a theater.
Head tracking performance is also inadequate. Most commercially available head trackers don't sample movement fast enough for real-time applications. They're laggy. Noticeable latency breaks the experience--when you move your head, it takes a few hundred milliseconds for the head tracker to register the movement and pass that information on to the game. Palmer has worked
with John Carmack and the motion tracker manufacturers to reduce the latency, and thus improve the experience.
So, how does it work in the real world? Giant Bomb editor and recent podcast guest Brad Shoemaker got a chance to sit down at E3 with John Carmack and test out an early Oculus Rift prototype with a special 3D/head-tracking version of Doom 3:
When asked about the experience, Shoemaker said "The game pretty much filled my entire vertical FOV. The tracking was beautiful, he'd gotten the latency down so low it was imperceptible."
As is the norm for an outlandish bit of new hardware these days, Palmer has launched preorders for the first Oculus Rift dev kits on Kickstarter. To pre-order the goggles (and a copy of Doom 3 BFG Edition) for delivery in December 2012, you'll need to pony up $300.
Before you break out your wallets, there are a few things you should know. First, only one game has been announced that supports the goggles--a special edition of Doom 3. While there are endorsements from developers at Valve, Unity, Epic, and more on the Kickstarter, $300 is a lot to pay for glasses to play a 7-year-old game that was not very well-reviewed.
Second, these glasses aren't very high resolution, the Rift glasses pair a single LCD screen with lenses. A portion of the display is piped into each eye, creating a distinct 3D image. The bad news is that the LCD in the dev kit only runs at 1280x800 resolution--each eye has 640x800 pixels devoted to it. From all reports, the effect with the prototype that Carmack demoed at E3 is quite good, but Oculus already has plans to make an even better commercial product in 2013. On a messageboard dedicated to 3D and head-mounted devices, Palmer said:
...after the (Kickstarter) kit is out, development of a higher res, well polished consumer head mount is going to go forward at a lightning pace.
I hate to succumb to hype, but in an attempt to keep people from being to upset about the delay: Imagine an HMD with a massive field of view and more pixels than 1080p per eye, wireless PC link, built in absolute head and hand/weapon/wand positioning, and native integration with some (if not all) of the major game engines, all for less than $1,000 USD. That can happen in 2013!
The Kickstarter was funded after just a few hours, and we've preordered a kit for delivery in December. But even though I'm extremely excited about the Oculus Rift, I'd strongly suggest that you wait to spend money on anything until people have tested the final hardware and there's support for games that came out this decade. This is even more true since an improved version of the goggles will likely be available before there's wide-spread support for the hardware.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We removed the implication that Oculus was working directly with John Carmack on these goggles. That was incorrect.