I've had a few days now to digest all the information that came out of this past weekend's Oculus Connect conference. It may have only been a two-day developer conference, but the keynotes alone had enough information to expand the imaginations (and lexicon) of virtual reality enthusiasts. There was of course the big Crescent Bay prototype announcement and demo, which Oculus unfortunately said that it has no plans to release or show anywhere else. It was also my first time being able to try the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus' current VR UI solution in Oculus Home and the Cinema application. My mind's been buzzing since I got back from LA, and I wanted to distill some of my personal takeaways from the experience.
Presence is NOT the same as reality
More so than at any past Oculus event or meeting I had attended before, the Oculus team emphasized the idea of presence--a significant milestone in virtual reality technology. It's this threshold past which your brain's subconscious computing starts to take over and makes you believe that you're in a separate space within a VR headset. Presence was emphasized because the team thinks that they've achieved it for most people in the Crescent Bay prototype. The 10 minute demo I had with Crescent Bay was leaps and bounds better than the DK2 experience, but I'm going to hold off on giving them the sustained presence checkbox until I can get more time with it. More importantly, we now know Oculus' definition of presence, and the specific technical requirements they're targeting for a consumer release (sub-millimeter tracking accuracy, sub-20ms latency, 90+Hz refresh, at least 1Kx1K per eye resolution, highly calibrated and wide FOV eyebox).
The reason I'm a little hesitant to say that I achieved the full presence in Crescent Bay is that I really have no appropriate point of comparison for that sensation. The feeling of presence in a virtual space should not be confused with the feeling of reality. I think a lot of people will expect that once they put on something like Crescent Bay, what they see inside the headset feels exactly like what the real world feels like. That's not the case at all. It still looks very much like rendered game graphics, with aliased edges and surreal feeling of disembodiment. To me, presence is about the feeling of space inside of the headset--a sense that the virtual objects and environments you're looking at have volume and a distance from you eyes that's not just two inches away on a screen. Stereoscopy and proper mapping of your head movements are a huge part of that. Presence in these VR demos never takes away the awareness of the virtual nature of that space, but you do feel more apart to it.
Standing in VR opens up possibilities
The biggest question for me coming out Oculus Connect was whether the consumer version of the Rift would be a sit-down-only experience. I know that Palmer told everyone in interviews that the Rift is meant to be used sitting down, but I agree with commenters that it may just be them working out a legally and ergonomically acceptable solution for a stand-up design. At least that's fun to think about. Regardless, the Crescent Bay demo confirmed that standing up in VR is technically possible with what Oculus has made so far, and that walking around isn't necessary for a stand-up VR experience (ie. we don't need VR treadmills). The square mat we were allowed to walk around on in the demo was sufficient to show how effective positional tracking could be in a stand-up experience. Even the ability to shift your full body and weight around was extremely meaningful--being able to physically crouch and duck in the virtual space felt liberating in a way that I think will have a profound impact in VR game design. Spinning around in a full 360 degrees was less important, or at least emphasized less with these demos.
Of course, this setup would require more hardware, including a way to mount the positional tracking camera above the standing user, and a cable management system to keep the headset cable out of the way.